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SCOTUS unanimously rules states can't impose excessive fines

Did you know that your property can be seized simply because you have been accused of a certain crime? You don't even have to be convicted. When police decide your money or property is connected to criminal activity, they can seize it in what is called a civil forfeiture proceeding.

If they do, you have to prove that the seized money or property was not connected to crime -- or the agency that seized it gets to keep it.

Some uses of civil forfeiture have been called "policing for profit." Police can abuse the process, for example, by targeting people for arrest primarily in order to seize their valuables. Or, it can be abused by seizing property whose value far exceeds the amount of the allowable fine. Yet until now, there have been few restraints placed on civil forfeiture.

The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled unanimously that civil forfeitures are fines, and that seizures that are disproportionate to the underlying crime could violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "excessive fines."

As we discussed in December when the Supreme Court had just heard it, the case involved an Indiana man who was arrested for selling a small amount of heroin in an effort to support his opioid addiction.

The police seized his $42,000 Land Rover, which he had bought with proceeds from his father's life insurance. But because the Land Rover had been used briefly to transport the heroin, the police seized it under civil forfeiture.

Since the Land Rover's value far exceeded the maximum fine for the offense, a trial court ruled that the seizure violated the Eighth Amendment's "excessive fines" clause. The Indiana Supreme Court overturned that ruling, deciding that the "excessive fines" clause didn't apply to states, but only to the federal government. It also decided that civil forfeitures should not count as fines for the purpose of the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court turned back both of those arguments, citing overwhelming logical and historical support.

"For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the court. "Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies."

Now, the case goes back to Indiana to determine if seizing the Land Rover was actually excessive in light of the seriousness of the man's offenses. One court, however, has already ruled that it was.

This ruling could be life-altering for people subjected to civil asset forfeiture. Old cases may be hard to reopen, but current and future defendants have a strong, new argument to make against the loss of their property.

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